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10

THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, Part 1 of 2

This year marks the 60th Anniversary since the brutal kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till, in Money, Mississippi, back in August of 1955, so I thought I’d share a little history with you, in light of the fact that it seems that killing young Black people without legal repercussions has become fashionable again. This is from a historical presentation I gave last week, and now it’s here for you all at Black American OURstory.

Emmett Till was born inChicago on 25 July 1941. At the age of 13, he was sent by his parents to visithis uncle, Moses Wright, in Money, Mississippi. Till was reportedly dared bysome local boys to enter Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market and talk to the white woman behindthe counter, Carolyn Bryant, whose husband owned the store. According to William Bradford Huie, ajournalist who later interviewed his killers—the only people who could leave usan account of what supposedly happened in that store, mind you— Till enteredand touched Carol Bryant’s hand while at the counter, and whistled at her as heleft the store. Four days later, on 28 August, 1955, he was abducted from his uncle’shome by Bryant’s husband, Roy, and Roy’s half brother, J. W. Milam. Till’smangled body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, with a largecotton-gin fan tied around his neck. He had been brutally beaten and shotthrough the head.

Till’s body was returned to Chicago, where his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see the brutality of her son’s death. The NAACP and other organizations planned demonstrations following the publication of photos of Till’s corpse in Jet magazine. On 19 September the kidnapping and murder trial of Bryant and Milam began. Till’s uncle, Moses Wright, identified the two men as the assailants, but the all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of Till’s murder after only 67-minutes of deliberation. According to one of the jurors, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

That’s the brief Wikipedia version of the Emmett Till story, but for those of you who actually like to scrutinize the history, let’s take a closer look via the documents:

  • Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradley, on 25 Dec 1954: The Jackson Daily News and the Vicksburg Evening Post published this often-used photo of them on September 1, 1955, the day after Emmett’s bloated corpse was pulled from the Tallahatchie River.
  • Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, 1955: Emmett and some of his friends went to Bryant’s to buy bubble gum on August 24, only his third day in Money.
  • Telegram from The Chicago Defender to the Eisenhower White House, 1 Sept 1955: John Sengstacke, Editor of one of the most widely circulated African American newspapers in the country at the time, inquires about what action the federal government planned to take about Emmett’s heinous murder.
  • J. William Barba’s reply to John Sengstacke (The Chicago Defender), 2 Sept 1955: According to Barba, Assistant to the Special Counsel to President Eisenhower, “inquiry has failed to reveal any facts which provide a basis for Federal jurisdiction or action.” Now follow the dates; Emmett’s body had only been pulled from the Tallahatchie River 2 days prior. Was Barba lying?
  • A Grief-stricken Mamie Bradley Mourning Over Emmett’s Casket, 3 Sept 1955: Emmett’s funeral was held in Chicago, Ill, at Robert’s Temple Church of God. Notice that his mother has pre-lynching photos of him posted on the casket lid. Mrs. Bradley chose an open-casket service, saying “There was no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.” Thousands of people attended the funeral and witness the brutality done to Emmett.
  • The Face of Emmett Till: as it appeared to funeral mourners looking down into his casket on September 3, 1955.
  • J. Edgar Hoover to Dillon Anderson re Emmett, 6 Sept 1955 (pg. 1 of 3): On September 6, Emmett was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery, Cook County, IL. On that same day, btw, a grand jury indicted Milam and Bryant. And the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, sent this letter to the Special Assistant to the President, Dillon Anderson, regarding the rallying work of the Communist Party USA around civil rights generally and Till specifically. Hoover claims “Communist Party functionaries… will launch a huge campaign protesting the killing of the 14-year-old Chicago Negro boy, Emmett Louis Till.” He writes, “The campaign will involve a scathing condemnation of police officials in the State of Mississippi and will be designed to show that full equality for all races does not exist in the United States.” As if CP USA propaganda, rather than actual U.S. history, was necessary to make that point. The other two pages read the same; Hoover focusing on how the CP might use Till’s murder and the acquittal of his killers to make America look bad, rather than whether or not Mamie Bradley received justice for her son’s lynching.
  • The original issue of Jet Magazine featuring the story of Emmett’s murder, 15 Sept 1955: John H. Johnson admitted in his 1989 memoir that initially he had “serious reservations about publishing the gruesome photos of Emmett,” but did so because after talking to Mamie Bradley, he realized they had a responsibility to show people the extent of the savagery of the attack on the child. Only Jet and one other African American publication [see Part 2] printed Till’s photos and story, with no white publications initially willing to do so. Also note that nowhere on the cover is Emmett’s story mentioned. Jet would go on to publish 10 more issues that featured information about the Till case, but this was the first one.

[stay tuned to Black American OURstory for THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL, Part 2, coming soon…]

That was how long ago, you ask?

Did you know that the wife of J. W. Milam, one of the men who brutally tortured and murdered Emmett Till, just died THIS YEAR?

Did you know that the woman he was accused of whistling at, Carolyn Bryant - who was said to be riding in the Chevy they used to transport Till’s  mangled body from Milam’s warehouse to the Tallahatchie River - IS STILL ALIVE RIGHT NOW?

‘Long ago’ is a relative term

8

TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR GRAPHIC IMAGES

Probably no one incident sparked the civil rights movement more than the murder of 14-yr-old Emmett Till.  (Before you Google this name please be aware that the images you will see are profoundly graphic.)

Emmett Till was a 14-yr-old African American boy from Chicago who was visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi.  He and his cousin skipped church to go to the general store to buy candy.  21-yr-old Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the owner, was working the counter.  According to Carolyn Bryant, Emmett mad advances towards her.  According to other witnesses, who were men and boys of color, one of whom was a local minister, he did not.  It has never become clear exactly what happened.  In Chicago, Till attended an integrated school and may have spoken to Bryant in a familiar manner.  In any case, it is unlikely that he put his hands upon her, especially in the presence of his country preacher uncle.

Whatever the case, when Till left the store Bryant was visibly upset and the young men were advised to go home immediately by the adults in the area.

Early in the morning of August 28, 1955 three men - Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband), his half-brother, John William Milam, and another man kidnapped Till from the home of his relatives.  During the night he was tortured, maimed, beaten and then shot.  It is not clear how many people were involved or who the others were.

Three days later his body was found in the Tallahatchie River, naked, horrifically disfigured and tied to a heavy fan blade with barbed wire around the neck.  He was identified by an engraved silver ring he was still wearing.

Authorities attempted to bury him in a pine box filled with lime in Mississippi (a quick and discreet way to dispose of a body) but the newspapers had already picked up the story.  The picture of a smiling, clean-cut young Emmett was now circulating around the country with stories of the lynchings in Mississippi.  Till’s mother Mamie insisted the body be returned to Chicago for a proper funeral and burial.  Tens of thousands of people came for the viewing, thousands attended the funeral.  

Following the public outcry, Bryant and Milam were indicted for the murder of Emmett Till.  Bryant and Milam admitted to taking Emmett but insisted they dropped him off alive, just intending to frighten him.  There were no hotels for black witnesses, reporters or even the black congressman from Michigan, Charles Diggs.  Two witnesses for the prosecution were detained by the Sheriff to prevent them from testifying.  The courthouse was completely segregated and Sheriff Strider addressed spectators of color by saying “Welcome back, niggers!"  The jury was allowed to drink beer in the courtroom and many of the white male spectators wore firearms holstered to their belts.

On Sept 23 the jury returned with a full acquittal for both defendants after 67-minutes of deliberation.  One juror was quoted as saying, "If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”  In later interviews the jurors acknowledged the two men were guilty, but did not believe that life in prison or the death penalty was a fit punishment for the killing of a black man.  In November 1955 a grand jury declined to indite either man for kidnapping.  

The verdict and the resulting publicity divided the nation.  This was the height of Jim Crow law in the south and brought to light atrocities hidden from (or overlooked by) people in other parts of the country.  

In 1956 Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine.  (They were protected by double jeopardy laws.)  In the interview Milam admitted to shooting Till and neither man saw themselves as doing anything wrong.

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,’ I said, 'I’m tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’

J. W. Milam, Look magazine, 1956

This interview was explosive.  This case was one of the forces behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, allowing the Federal Government to intervene in cases where civil rights were compromised.  The murder of Emmett Till occupied such a large place in American culture that poems, essays, songs and tv shows dedicated to the topic were created, firmly planting the issue in the face of a nation that had, until then, looked away.

If the facts as stated in the Look magazine account of the Till affair are correct, this remains: two adults, armed, in the dark, kidnap a fourteen-year-old boy and take him away to frighten him. Instead of which, the fourteen-year-old boy not only refuses to be frightened, but, unarmed, alone, in the dark, so frightens the two armed adults that they must destroy him…. What are we Mississippians afraid of?

William Faulkner, "On Fear”, 1956

After the Look interview Bryant and Milam’s support in the community dried up.  They became the faces of the very public shame and humiliation Mississippi and the south were starting to experience.  Blacks boycotted the store.  Banks closed their doors.  Blacks refused to work in their farms.  Eventually they moved to Texas where they soon found they were not welcome and had to return to Mississippi.  They have both since died of cancer.